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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

January 2: Remembering the Scott Brown Disaster

Amidst all the retrospectives of the last decade, I had to note at New York the upcoming decennial anniversary of a bad moment for Democrats:

I’ve only seen one take on the 2010s, from USA Today’s Jill Lawrence, that gives proper weight to the shocking event that showed in the world of politics, the “teens” would not reflect a continuation of the strong Democratic trends of 2006 (which made Nancy Pelosi Speaker of the House) and 2008 (when Obama won the presidency in a near-landslide).

That would be Republican Scott Brown’s January 2010 conquest of the Massachusetts Senate seat held since 1962 by the “liberal lion” of that chamber, Ted Kennedy. At the time there were some Democratic hopes that the special election was an aberration based on irregular turnout and a feckless campaign by Democrat Martha Coakley. But as Lawrence pointed out, it was the ultimate omen:

“To call Brown’s win a trauma for Democrats would be an understatement. And yet, although it was a DefCon 1 warning about the midterm to come, they went into those 2010 November elections unprepared for the debacle. Wipeouts in the state legislatures that would draw up new and in some cases egregiously gerrymandered election maps based on the 2010 Census. Wipeouts in races for the governors who would have been able to temper or veto those maps. Wipeouts in the House, installing a GOP majority hellbent on thwarting Obama.

“The trend continued through 2014, from state legislaturesgovernors and the House to a 2014 Republican Senate takeover that offered a glide path for conservative judges and justices when the next jolt arrived two years later in the form of Trump.”

Yes, Obama was reelected in between those two strong Republican years, though by a significantly reduced margin (dropping from 7.2 percent to 3.9 percent in the popular vote). And of course, Brown lost his Senate seat to Elizabeth Warren in 2012. At the time, many observers (myself included) deduced that the demographic disparity between midterm and presidential electorates explained a lot of the apparent oscillation of results, which augured well for Democratic prospects in 2016. And then you-know-what happened.

Now, three weeks before the tenth anniversary of the Brown shocker, there is no easily discernible pattern in American party politics going forward. Democrats did better in 2018 than Republicans did in 2014, by any standard other than net Senate seat gained (Republicans picked up nine net seats in 2014 and actually gained two more in 2018 thanks to a heavily skewed landscape). But that wasn’t unusual for a president’s first midterm, particularly a president as unpopular as Donald Trump. The 2020 election is widely expected to be a barn-burner, and while Democrats should continue to benefit gradually but steadily from demographic changes in their favor, Republicans have proven quite good at maximizing their power via a combination of voter suppression, gerrymandering, the unrepresentative nature of the Senate and the Electoral College, and ruthless demagoguery. If Trump hangs onto the White House next year and his party hangs onto the Senate, the GOP could establish a hold on the federal judiciary lasting for decades, while continuing to punch above their popular weight in other arenas thanks to the structural advantages they maintain.

Brown’s victory and the ensuing struggle to enact Obamacare (and other, less successful, elements of the president’s agenda) without a Democratic Senate supermajority also offered a tutorial on the obstruction a disciplined Republican majority could mount, and the price Democrats would have to pay in policy compromises to govern even with a strong position in Congress (which they were soon to lose).

Without question, Democrats will be ebullient if they manage to defenestrate Trump, particularly if that win is accompanied by the first Democratic trifecta (control of the White House and both Houses of Congress) since 2008. But as 2010 quickly showed, political fortune can change almost instantly, and the work of building a governing majority never ends.

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